I recently posted a question on Facebook: “If you saw the term ‘apatheism,’ what would it bring to mind?” Without knowing the definition of this relatively novel term, many commenters suggested it had to do with apathy toward God. When the title of your book invokes something familiar but unexplored in the public imagination, you are on to something. Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care, by Kyle Beshears, may be the best book yet written on how to engage the present culture with the Gospel.
Beshears shows a much deeper awareness of our culture than many of our pollsters, pundits, and theologians. We so often categorize people in terms of thought-grouping of self-professed worldviews, but most people have never explored their worldview, let alone know what it is they actually believe. Worldviews are best seen through lived experience. What we are seeing across our culture is not overt skepticism toward God, but a generalized indifference affecting both the head and the heart.
The fact that Beshears connects the heart to worldview is helpful here as well, as our affections feed our thoughts as much as our thoughts feed our affections. The age of making abstract intellectual arguments to deal with the abstract intellectual ideas of abstract groups of people is over. It often baffles Christians that people can hold to two contradictory positions at the same time and not care, but this is a reflection of our own rationalistic biases when we should be engaging the fact that they don’t care.
This book is thus helpful from the outset because it gives a label to something we are all recognizing in the culture at large, as well as gives us a map for understanding how we got here. Mercifully, Beshears does not give us the standard history of ideas to explain the present moment (something I have been guilty of doing). He spends a bit of time explaining how a belief in God in our present culture has become both contestable and diverse. But he then spends just as much time explaining how apathy is rooted in a status of life that is both distracted and comfortable. These experiential factors are just as important, if not more important, to explaining the widespread apathy toward God in our culture.
We are endlessly busy and over-saturated with technology. As a result, “we effortlessly avoid the biggest, most difficult questions of life,” and “lack the bandwidth for self-reflection” (35-36). Indeed. When I was assigned to the U.S.-Mexico border with my last Army unit, our soldiers faced minimal danger—but also were prohibited from using any of their technological devices for up to 12 hours a day. As a result, I had an extensive counseling load, dealing with those who were left alone—naked and exposed—before their own thoughts and feelings for the first time in their lives. COVID-19 burst the comfortable bubble of personal distraction this past year as well, and we’ll be seeing the spiritual and psychological affects of this unveiling for the next decade.
As Christians, we are often daunted by the apathy of others toward God, which often ends apologetic discussions before they’ve even begun. Beshears prods us at the outset, “What if we live in an Athens without a statue to the unknown God?” (4) But we are not left with that dismal thought as we make our way through the book.
Beshears helpfully provides an easy-to-use methodology for puncturing apathy centering on joy. On a visceral level, there is no better antidote to apathy than joy. Life, rightly oriented, can be delightful. This means that before any apologetic encounter, Christians must probe their own hearts for the joy that can be found in the Lord alone. This should be convicting for many of us, as we’re prone to view apologetics as battle and thus are often more acrimonious than joyful. Our hearts matter as much before the Lord as the hearts of others!
Instead of making a joyful heart a brief segue into the meat of his apologetic method, Beshears stays put for a bit and engages in a semi-poetic riff on the beauty of capital-J “Joy” (67-70). This is probably the most personally edifying portion of the book. After setting the reader’s heart aright, Beshears then dives into the complexity of the Christian concept of joy against the backdrop of earthly happiness. He reminds the reader that “the Christian faith audaciously declares that joy and sorrow coexist” (75). It’s a “joy because of and joy in spite of” (76). Before we can start engaging others, we need to remember that our joy is found in our Savior and is not contingent on our circumstances.
We get into the meat of the methodology in chapter 6: “How We Share When They Don’t Care.” Here, Beshears reminds the reader why most apologetic methods are no longer particularly effective—they assume that people overtly care about the God question (87). What then does an apologetic of joy look like and why can it be effective? It allows others to introduce their sources of joy and then plants seeds of doubt into whether those sources of joy are powerful and permanent (89-90).
Beshears then spends his last chapter showing how doubt can be planted, step-by-step, using real life examples and how the story of true joy can be shared from Scripture. In this grand finale, he channels a bit of Machen, Koukl, and a lot of pertinent Bible passages to make his point. Even his point about sharing the story as opposed to bare propositions is refreshing for readers who know our present context. We now live in a culture that pits narratives against one another, not mere ideas. Thankfully, the Bible sets eternal truth within the context of the story of redemption. Against all cultural and historic backdrops, Scripture somehow still stands the test of time.
Two brief critiques of this superb and exemplary book: First, while Beshears is breaking heavily from the apologetic methods of the prior generation, his concept of joy still seems a bit too abstract. He could go even further in his experiential approach while still being faithful. Instead of jumping into the joy question and planting seeds of doubt about the future, why not plumb the depths of the past which help forget the present idols of joy? Why not bring out the pain points—“my dad left me”—to show that finding one’s greatest joy in being a dad is also an attempt to flee from the hell of the past in search of a false heaven?
As a second and slighter critique, his examples and methodology seem a bit bound by a particular American subculture—southern, older, and still borrowing the capital of previous generations of Christianity. I am bound to a context of, well, primarily young adults across demographic lines in the Army. Beshears sometimes assumes a stable family background (115) that is not true of the vast majority of young adults. His idea of storytelling sounds a bit more like a staple of the South than of the gamer generation, which lives in the artificial storylines of others. Even the assumption that joy can be found in things like playing music, fishing, or hiking seems reminiscent of prior generations. Most young adults don’t believe joy is possible, so they hide in their distractions—hence the need to dig into their pasts first.
While much could be added to this work, nothing can truly be taken away from it. It will be a seminal popular work in post-Christian apologetics. While a bit heady for some lay Christians, it is currently the best treatment of apologetics on the market and should be an immediate hit on the small group circuit. I personally plan to recommend it to the Special Forces husbands in my church small group. Beshears finally has us going in the right direction for how we should think about and engage the culture as it is, not as we wish it to be.